Water Guns and Ancient Moats

Sangkranta is the Cambodian celebration of the new year. Sangkranta lasts a few days each April and, by the end, every city is wet to the bone. It’s formally three days, but festivities last up to a week–full of festivals, food, and street fighting. Cambodia’s weapon of choice? Water guns. 

Kids and adults alike stand on street corners, armed with water baloons, water guns, and wide smiles. Trust no one. A sweet-looking grandmother may smile and then pull out a little pistol to squirt you in the face, laughing with glee. 

If you want to stay dry, you’d better rent a closed car, or arm yourself with an even larger, more intimidating water gun.

This tradition comes from the solar new year celebrated in many countries in southeast Asia, stretching from India down to southern Thailand (the Thai’s celebration, Songkran, has a similar love of water).

Cambodian dancer
Cambodian dancer

Celebration begins April 13 or 14, just before the beginning of rainy season. Farmers have just finished the harvesting season, and have cause to celebrate. 

In 2022, I just happened to arrive in Cambodia in time for Sangkranta. I stumbled in blindly to what was reportedly the biggest new years festival anyone remembered. It was Cambodia’s first celebration since COVID had locked down public gatherings, and there was a lot of pent up energy to be released.

Looking back, I’m amazed I was able to find transportation. During the New Year, the Khmer all come together, gather by families and all head towards Siem Reap. I only got a bus ticket into the city from Phnom Penh by the skin of my teeth–but it was well worth the effort.

With the last fling of COVID keeping most far-fletched travelers at bay, there weren’t too many tourists across the dozens of temples I walked through. Instead, I saw the people of Cambodia, all coming together to celebrate their heritage at the hub of their history: Angkor.

I’m that tourist, walking around alone, nose in a guidebook, glancing up and walking remarkably slowly through the temple hallways. I do have to audibly remind myself to eat and drink water; I’ll try to just run off fumes to see another heritage site.

Angkor
Angkor

But as thoroughly as I like to prepare my travel, the pure surprise and coincidence of the new year made my trip to Angkor even more unforgettable.

A few kilometers outside of Angkor Wat proper, I heard loud speakers with live musicians performing and smelled wafting smoke of skewered meat. As I got closer, the brightness and freshness of the scene felt a little out of place; colorful plastic flags and bright banners were draped across a crumbling centuries-old temple.

This was a smaller and more peripheral temple, kilometers away from Angkor Wat proper. And in this area of Angkor, with families in formal dress and delicate ancient walls to preserve, no water guns were in sight. 

Of course I had to stop. It was for Sangkranta, and beneath the bright flags, rows of food stalls, artisinal crafts, and native artists were selling silks, baskets, and gorgeous art. I left with two rice-paper pressings from Angkor’s famed stone carvings, after having a lovely conversation with the seller about how he payed for his medical degree by working in Angkor.

Before I left, down in a grassy lawn beside this ancient temple, I saw rows of targets were lined up to host a traditional Khmer archery competition.

Angkor is a place of such deep history. You see the religious dynamics, the overtaking of Hinduism by Buddhism and then back again, and then reversed, and so on. A temple erected by Buddhists will have carvings chinked out by later generation Hindus. The religion in favor depended on the reigning ruler. 

At Angkor Wat proper, pieces of the Mahabharata, the ancient Hindu epic, are depicted in ornate carvings across long walls. Arjuna, the famed archer of the Bhagavad Gita, is depicted, arrow and bow in hand.

To know and love the Gita (Stephen Mitchell’s translation is my recommendation) and see this carving was powerful enough as an experience. But to have seen modern Khmer youth competing in archery, so engaged with and proud of their heritage, was palpable. History felt alive.

Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples are undeniably a global bucket-list-item; but they’re a wealth worth sharing. Banyan trees grow out of stone walls, separating delicate carvings that made my jaw drop at the level of craftsmanship they entailed. It’s an astounding place.

As I walked the dirt path along the held-at-bay jungle toward some of Angkor’s renowned gates, a band of traditional Khmer musicians played their jingling, rhythmic, step-beat songs. The heat and the green and the music, as I crossed flagstones softened by a millions footsteps, again moved me deeply. What a space to be present in, what a place to be invited to. What a gift.

My sentimentality remained, though the trip was complicated by one small thing: I dropped my phone into an ancient moat. I managed to protect it from the water guns and water-balloon-armed children. But crossing the water to get to Banteay Srei, I dropped my phone through the floorboards of the metal-scaffolding walkway. What could I do but briefly panic, laugh at myself, and jump in after it?

Anyway, some travel advice: Don’t do that. Though, I am the only person I know who’s waded in an ancient moat. Thankfully my experience was only witnessed by probably 100 or so people–no need to be red-faced with embarrassment as the two young French tourists ahead of you gasp in shock at your misfortune. Regardless, that trip was one of the best of my life–though I do need to go back and finally make it to Banteay Srei.

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